Texas Emergency Management ONLINE2011 Vol. 58 No. 6

AGENCY PARTNERS: TxDOT AND WILDFIRES

TxDOT message sign

Many state and federal agencies are involved in supporting the fight against this year’s highly dangerous wildfires. The Texas Department of Transportation and its dynamic message signs help warn the driving public about the serious dangers of fires. But TxDOT also provides other key types of support, according to Information Specialist Randy Ormsby of the TxDOT Maintenance Division.

What types of assistance does the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) provide to Texans and Texas firefighters when there are wildfires?
TxDOT has a limited role in wildfires, since employees are not actually trained in fire fighting. However, we do provide several key services. One of our primary responsibilities is to display appropriate information on our network of Dynamic Message Signs. These are the large electronic signs typically seen on overpasses or on the sides of major highways. These messages can be tailored to the situation within a given area. Signs can warn of highway closings, smoke on highways, burn bans in effect, wildfire danger and other messages as needed. We work with the Texas Division of Emergency Management’s State Operations Center (SOC) to determine the best message – and where and when to display it.

What other important types of support does TxDOT provide?
When requested by the Texas Department of Public Safety Disaster District Chairman, TxDOT will supply fuel to local volunteer fire departments during catastrophic active fires. In addition, at the request of the DDC or SOC, the agency provides manpower and equipment to create fireguards along the TxDOT right of way. We also provide water trucks to help firefighters in remote locations.

How and when are dynamic warning signs used?
We work very closely with the SOC to determine where and when messages need to be deployed. We try not to keep static messages up too long, since the public may begin to ignore the signs if they say the same thing for too long. During wildfire season, we will alternate our wildfire awareness messages with other messages as appropriate. But if there is a need for a message due to increased wildfire danger in a specific region or area, we can change the message quickly if asked to do so by the SOC.

What is the best advice for motorists when they see fire crews or smoke on a road?
Be very alert and ready for a detour. If traffic control crews are on the scene directing traffic, slow down and be ready to do what they ask you to do. If fire crews are moving and using their sirens, get off to the side of the road and let them pass. Use common sense. If the road ahead is covered in smoke, turn around and go back the other way. Don't risk getting caught in the middle of a fire where you can't see where you're driving.

How else does TxDOT get important information to the general public?
In addition to the dynamic message signs, the agency provides updates on highway conditions and road closures associated with wildfires on our Highway Condition Reporting System. This system also provides information on any other type of severe weather event or emergency situation affecting Texas highways. We work with the media to keep the public informed and we also provide information through electronic social networking.

How does TxDOT interface with other agencies during wildfires and other disasters?
TxDOT works primarily through the State Operations Center and with Disaster District Chairmen. We also work closely with the Texas Forest Service and keep abreast of daily operational fire conference calls. Generally, when locals or other agencies ask for our assistance, we route them through either their local DDC or the SOC so that a consistent chain of command can be maintained.

Can local officials call you directly and ask for TxDOT signs?
When locals call us directly, we refer them back to their local DDC or the SOC. We also work with counties to allow them to deploy burn ban signs in our right of way, so long as they meet our standards and policy.

Randy Ormsby, Information Specialist, TxDOT Maintenance Division


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